“My second home,” says jazz great Ahmad Jamal of Chicago, and for good reason. Not only did the pianist’s music helped to build the legendary Chess label — home to rock and blues pioneers Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and many others — he also created one of his best-selling albums here.
Recorded in 1958 at the Hotel Pershing on Chicago’s South Side, “At the Pershing: But Not for Me” remains a landmark album of that era. Jamal’s minimalist performance style on standards by George and Ira Gershwin (“But Not for Me”), Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (“The Surrey With the Fringe on Top”), among others, provided a new vocabulary for jazz. The album became one of the very first true blockbusters, earning a place next to the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Time Out,” and more important, it would launch Jamal on the international stage where he remains today.
“Chicago was vibrant. We had so many clubs, it was unbelievable was what going on,” said Jamal, who opens the 2018-19 SCP Jazz Series, celebrating its 25th anniversary season, with a concert Oct. 12 at Symphony Center.
Now 84, Jamal grew up in Pittsburgh and started playing piano at age 3. He turned professional as a teenager and ended up moving to Chicago in 1950, where he formed a trio with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier. Here, he became a fixture on both the city’s downtown and South Side nightclub circuits, but his home base soon became the Pershing Lounge at 6400 S. Cottage Grove, where the trio performed five sets a night, six nights a week, for over a year.
While at Chess, Jamal recorded nearly 20 albums for Argo and Cadet, two of the label’s jazz subsidiaries, in a run that took him through the late 1960s. He recalls a “wonderful relationship with brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, who both allowed him “complete control over everything, from the graphics to the music,” he said. “I did what I wanted to do, it was a wonderful time.”
As he nears his ninth decade, Jamal shows no signs of retirement. “Marseille,” his latest disc, came out last year, and he’s at work on his next release. “I’ve been touring since I was 17 years old,” he said. “Instead of going to Juilliard, I jumped on the road, and I’ve been on the road ever since.”
A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds & Stories.